As soon as fifth generation Bitterroot rancher Drew Lewis was old enough to move out on his own from his family’s commercial dairy farm in the Bitterroot Valley, he was ready to pursue a new avenue that he was certain wouldn’t include farming.

“Everything is easy compared to dairy farming,” says Drew with a laugh. “When I graduated and started my own fencing operation, I moved entirely away from ranching. I was ready for something new.”

It wasn’t until he met his wife Kaci, also a Bitterroot Valley native, and started a family of their own that they realized they missed the ranching lifestyle after all, with a shared dream of having their own cattle and piece of property someday. They started to explore ways that would make it possible for them to start their own operation.

But, it wouldn’t be that easy. Land values in the Bitterroot Valley have skyrocketed over the past few years just as they have all over Montana, making it nearly impossible for young people to enter the ranching industry on their own.

“Growing up here, you take all the open space and this way of life for granted until you realize that opportunity might not be available for you anymore,” says Drew. “The ag world seems to be vanishing, and we were determined to find a way to be able to afford something of our own, especially now that the valley has such high land prices.”

After learning more about the conservation easement tool through extensive meetings with the Bitter Root Land Trust, Drew and Kaci made the decision to purchase a 420-acre ranch in the Burnt Fork area of Stevensville with the goal to conserve the property always at the forefront.

Thanks to critical funding received from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agricultural Land Easement Program and the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond, the Lewis family officially conserved Triple D Ranch in partnership with the Bitter Root Land Trust in the summer of 2022.

Named Triple D Ranch in honor of their three young children – Dash, Diem and Denali – the land consists mostly of hay and pasture ground that supports the family’s cattle operation, Skyline Angus. The ranch also serves as a wildlife corridor to a variety of different native species including elk and deer, adding to more than 7,000 protected acres of family farms, ranches and wildlife habitat in the Burnt Fork neighborhood alone, many of which were also made possible thanks to the funding support of the Agricultural Land Easement Program.

“We held true to our vision to conserve the ranch over the past few years, during a time when land values are incredibly high and we could have made more money selling the land to someone else,” says Drew. “Our motivation to work with the Bitter Root Land Trust to protect this place was in large part for the benefit of our kids. They all have their own cows that they are responsible for, help with chores and have come to love the ranching lifestyle. We want this to still be here for them and our grandkids someday.”

Thanks to the vision of the Lewis family, and critical support from funding partners like the NRCS, 420 acres of prime farmland is now protected forever.